Ugandan and Congolese Troops Are Conducting Joint Operations: What Could that Mean for MONUSCO?

Security forces secure the scene of a blast on a street near the parliamentary building in Kampala, Uganda, Tuesday, Nov. 16, 2021. (AP Photo/Hajarah Nalwadda)

On November 30, 2021, the Congolese army (FARDC) and the Ugandan military (UPDF) launched joint operations in the Beni territory of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) against the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF), an armed group that originated in Uganda but has operated in eastern Congo since the mid-nineties and is responsible for at least 2,000 civilian deaths since 2017. The offensive comes in the wake of a series of suicide attacks in Kampala, the Ugandan capital. Some regional governments have attributed the attacks to the ADF, which maintains nebulous (and contested) ties to the Islamic State (ISIS). The Congolese government’s initial position towards Ugandan operations was ambiguous—government spokesperson Patrick Muyaya notably claimed prior to the offensive that there would only be “concerted actions” and information-sharing between the two countries. However, the DRC government has since publicly embraced “joint operations” by the UPDF and the FARDC.

For the United Nations Organization Stabilization Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (MONUSCO), UPDC-FARDC operations raise critical legal, operational, and reputational challenges. There is a chance that the joint offensive could result in reduced ADF operations, and by association reduced violence against civilians. However, there is also an important possibility that the UPDF-FARDC offensive will lead to increased threats to civilians, either through ADF reprisal attacks against community members or as a direct result of the offensive itself.

Legal and Operational Challenges

MONUSCO’s mandate does not authorize support to any national military forces except the FARDC—meaning the mission has no mandate to support UPDF-FARDC joint operations. But following the announcement of the joint offensive, several United Nations (UN) member states called for coordination and information-sharing between MONUSCO and the UPDF. MONUSCO has similarly been clear that while it cannot “support” joint operations, the mission fully recognizes the importance of coordination.

Information-sharing will be critical in a region where two national armies and one international peacekeeping force are conducting operations. As a result, the mission will need to determine at what point the information it shares with the UPDF functions as “support.” There is no apparent legal issue with, for example, MONUSCO sharing information on the location of its own bases or its activities—such information could be important to deconflict operations. But providing information that could reasonably be construed as support, such as intelligence on ADF positions which could inform UPDF aerial bombardment, might fall beyond the bounds of the mission’s mandate.

In a region where protection threats are enormous and MONUSCO has struggled to protect civilians, information on UPDF-FARDC operations may also be necessary to predict and respond to reprisal attacks. Past offensives against the ADF have had devastating consequences on civilians. As journalist Robert Flummerfelt explained, “All of the major spikes in killings in ADF history come immediately after the beginning of major FARDC operations, or joint FARDC-MONUSCO operations, against the group. It’s like clockwork.”

While the fact that MONUSCO has no mandate to support UPDF-FARDC operations is clear, the mission faces a thornier set of legal considerations when it comes to continued support to the FARDC in the Beni region. The recently renewed 2021 mandate calls for “joint operations by the Congolese security forces and MONUSCO” and instructs the Mission to “carry out targeted offensive operations in the DRC to neutralise armed groups…either unilaterally or jointly with the Congolese security forces.” But the mandate additionally requires that support to the FARDC support is in compliance with the Human Rights Due Diligence Policy (HRDDP), which prohibits support to state security actors when “substantial grounds [exist] for believing there is a real risk of the receiving entities committing grave violations of international humanitarian, human rights or refugee law.”

To implement the HRDDP, MONUSCO relies in part on substantial information it has gathered over the years on Congolese armed forces, including records of human rights abuses. Prior to supporting an FARDC operation, for example, MONUSCO must have adequate knowledge of the units and commanders involved and must withhold assistance if it cannot effectively evaluate the likelihood of violations. Notably, the HRDDP refers to the overall risk of beneficiaries committing grave violations of international law; its application is not limited to instances in which UN support is used in the commission of these violations. If, for example, MONUSCO provides gasoline to an FARDC unit, its HRDDP analysis is not limited to violations enabled by the gasoline—rather, it must analyze the overall risk that the unit will commit violations.

Even if MONUSCO does not support UPDF-FARDC operations directly, the offensive nonetheless poses important challenges for the application of the HRDDP. The mission may not know, for instance, whether an FARDC unit will participate in a UPDF-led operation (or which UPDF commander may plan that operation). And given that the mission may not have extensive data on Ugandan armed forces, MONUSCO may be unable to determine whether there is “a real risk” of FARDC beneficiaries committing grave violations of international law when collaborating with the UPDF. Ultimately, the mission may need to reconsider at least some elements of its support to the FARDC to comply with its mandate and the HRDDP.

Finally, the framing of UPDF-FARDC operations could have implications for MONUSCO as well. Ugandan President Museveni described the joint operations as an effort to eliminate “terrorists,” and Congolese President Tshisekedi has referred to the ADF as “Islamist terrorists.” This framing may create strategic challenges for MONUSCO, which has no counterterrorism mandate. One UN expert described the situation as follows: “UN peacekeeping is not well-suited to counter-terrorism type operations and if President Museveni and Tshisekedi are operating in a counter-terrorism framework, it is going to complicate how the Mission sees its mandate.”

Popular Pressure and Reputational Risks

Beyond creating meaningful operational and legal challenges for MONUSCO, UPDF-FARDC operations also pose serious risks of increased public anger toward the mission in a part of the country where MONUSCO has faced significant popular discontent.

While there is still limited reporting on perceptions of the UPDF-FARDC offensive, there are early indications that these operations have support among at least some civilians in the Beni region. The offensive comes at a time where the Congolese government’s repeated extensions of martial law (État de siège) have failed to meaningfully improve civilian protection or prevent massacres. As one diplomatic source in the DRC explained, “there is a lot of popular support [for these operations]. I think for many Congolese people in Beni, after so much violence, they are ready to welcome any solution that can help get rid of these militias.”

In Beni in particular, the mission has faced major protests for perceived unwillingness to protect civilians or join Congolese soldiers on the frontlines. The mission’s current leadership has made efforts to improve cooperation with the FARDC—several days after the UPDF crossed into Congo, the mission and the Congolese army announced the signature of a new framework focused on joint efforts to combat armed groups. But as mentioned earlier, the UPDF-FARDC operations may create new difficulties for MONUSCO’s capacity to support the Congolese army. Legal challenges arising from the scope of the mission’s mandate and the HRDDP, however, are likely invisible for civilians in the Beni region who may see inaction—or perceived inaction—as a sign of mission unwillingness to protect them.

MONUSCO finds itself between a rock and a hard place. If UPDF-FARDC operations give rise to an improved security environment, the mission could be publicly blamed for not participating, despite having no legal basis for doing so. On the other hand, if the operation results in increased ADF attacks against civilians, the mission could face public fall-out for its inability to prevent these attacks.

No Easy Options

Though UPDF-FARDC operations place MONUSCO in a challenging position, the mission can still take proactive steps to protect civilians. First, MONUSCO’s efforts to push for effective information-sharing with the UPDF are important. While the mission cannot share information (or undertake actions) that would constitute “support,” MONUSCO should gather as much operational information from the UPDF and FARDC as possible. Consistent coordination on UPDF-FARDC operations could help MONUSCO to better predict and respond to ADF reprisal attacks, which the group may undertake as a response to military pressure. To achieve this, MONUSCO will likely need support from the international community to pressure Ugandan forces to effectively share information.

Second, MONUSCO has an important role to play in monitoring harm to civilians, including potential violations of international law, committed by the UPDF and FARDC. The mission’s public commitment to documenting abuses committed during joint operations is laudable and could prove vital in holding both governments accountable.

Third, the mission must think creatively about how it can still support the FARDC in full compliance with the HRDDP, as it is mandated to do. This will require robust monitoring of how assistance, such as intelligence-sharing or logistical support, is used. It may also require clear information from the Congolese military regarding which FARDC units will participate in operations involving the UPDF. Notably, the mission has at times used HRDDP as a tool to positively influence FARDC compliance with international law, such as by making support contingent on holding soldiers accountable for abuses. Similar opportunities may exist here as well.

Finally, MONUSCO has the ability to be a leading voice in proposing solutions to the ADF crisis that are not exclusively military in nature. Repeated offensives against the ADF by the FARDC since 2014—in some instances with MONUSCO support—have often resulted in horrific cycles of revenge massacres against civilians. It is a common refrain that there is no purely military solution to the problem of armed groups in Eastern Congo. Ultimately, it is vital that the international community fully recognize that this applies to Beni as well.

Daniel Levine-Spound (@dlspound) is CIVIC’s Peacekeeping Researcher covering the Democratic Republic of the Congo and South Sudan. Daniel is based in Goma and leads CIVIC’s research on the United Nations Organization Stabilization Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (MONUSCO) and the United Nations Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS).